Sports in Shakespeare

In honor of the upcoming Olympics I thought it might be fun to look at references to sports in Shakespeare’s plays.  They can be in passing, or actually portrayed on stage.  I know about the wrestling in As You Like It, and I suppose we need to count the fencing in Hamlet (they are after all counting points, not trying to kill each other, in theory). What else?  Sorry for the short post I’m on vacation 🙂

11 thoughts on “Sports in Shakespeare

  1. Swimming – as a competition: Julius Caesar. Also the distance running events there – Mark Antony around Rome.

    (Ignoring Bear Bating, and Macbeth)

    Archery? – I’ll go for the cupid shot in A Midsummer Nights Dream (although it wasn’t in the medals).

  2. Hunting is mentioned in several plays (Titus, Twelfth Night, Love’s Labour’s Lost, etc.). Although it’s not an Olympic sport since it would involve killing animals.

  3. Angling in Antony and Cleo (great scene with Cleo fishing);
    Football in King Lear – someone gets called a base football player.

    I’ve heard that the ‘Master-Mistress’ of the Sonnets (No 20?) is actually a reference to the jack in bowls!

    Sport, as used by Shakespeare, has a different meaning.

  4. How in heaven’s name can one go from “Master Mistris” (and yes it is Sonnet 20) to the jack in bowls? That really is stretching it! I think the two best explanations are (1) feudal lord and chivalric mistress in one (Richard Simpson [1868]) and (2) sovereign mistress (Malone [1790]). And, yes, when Shakespeare uses the word “sport” it usually means pasttime, often of the amorous sort (although sometimes also a jest).

  5. Master Mistress was a term used in Bowls at the time (apparently) for the jack – the first ball which both determined (mastered) and attracted (mistress) the placing of the other balls.

    Chess – not a sport, a game (Tempest).

    No cricket I’m afraid.

  6. Thanks for the reference, Alan. The OED is very enlightening. Master and mistress were both used to refer to the jack, a small ball that the bowlers aimed at. The “Master Mistris of my passion” could just possibly be a metaphor from bowls for that which draws or guides. In my research of 300 years of commentary I had not seen mention of this possibility. Where did you get this from?!?!???

  7. I’ve actually heard the jack called ‘mistress’ in England as a younger man (yep – we still play bowls ‘t’up north’ – cricket and bowling clubs share facilites and young men frequently play both).
    I think there is a reference to it in the Shakespeare Quarterly – but couldn’t tell you how long ago.

    Another game from Antony and Cleo is billiards.

    There is a book out there somewhere called ‘Games and Sports in Shakespeare,’ by a certain Mr Brewster

  8. What a memory! The article was by Martin B. Friedman in Shakespeare Quarterly in 1971. A very good one, too. Should have been cited by at least eight editiors who either missed it or ignored it. I missed it. If I ever get to write a second edition I’ll include it.

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